As the Spartans move past a complicated men’s basketball season and a loss in the Big Ten Tournament, fans and student journalists on the team discuss the season, COVID, March Madness and the future of the program.
Overall, the Spartans had an irregular season, by many metrics. The team finished 15-11 overall and with a 9-11 record in the Big Ten. MSU also lost in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. However, these numbers don’t tell the full story.
MSU had somewhat of an inconsistent record against opponents, from their 30-point loss to Iowa at the Breslin Center, to their recent win against the University of Michigan, which came just three days after a 19-point loss to the same team.
In explaining this chaotic season, Troy Distelrath, a lifelong fan of MSU basketball, says it is important to keep the pandemic in mind.
“COVID has been the single greatest factor,” said the MSU junior. The team experienced significant setbacks throughout the season due to illnesses in their program. The team essentially had to take two weeks off in January due to COVID-19 outbreaks within the team. All in all, a majority of the team and coach Tom Izzo himself ended up testing positive for the virus.
Sara Tidwell, men’s basketball reporter with the State News, also cited significant COVID related challenges.
“Their season could’ve gone a little bit better, but they did what they could with all of the problems that they had with COVID, and having to be out for two weeks, and not even knowing if they were going to have a season until the very last minute,” she said.
Tidwell noted that despite the season’s rough beginnings, the team seemed to find its “winning formula” by the end of February.
“It took them a while to get in their groove, but they eventually found it, and that’s what Tom Izzo is good at – he’s good at making something out of nothing and, in this uncharacteristically dreadful season, it was a shock to everybody when they kind of came out on top and ended as the No. 9 seed in the (Big Ten) tournament,” she said.
Distelrath said, “the last two weeks have turned (the season) into more of a success story than it otherwise would’ve been.” In this period, the Spartans beat Ohio State, Indiana and Michigan – students said that this run likely gave MSU a fighting chance to be included in the NCAA Tournament.
The NCAA March Madness Tournament begins March 18. With Michigan State’s loss in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament and a shaky season, inclusion in March Madness is not guaranteed. Invitations to March Madness aren’t always determined with just numbers, so some fans believe that MSU may have already proven themselves as tournament-ready despite their season’s rough patches.
Distelrath said that while MSU did enough for a tournament invitation by defeating Michigan and delivering their third loss of the season, he noted that beating Maryland in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament would have been a nice “insurance policy” for the Spartans. He also predicted that they may end up between a 9 and 11 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Jayna Bardahl, who also works for the State News as a men’s basketball reporter, said that if the Spartans are invited to March Madness, they might have a decent run. She predicts they might make it to the Sweet Sixteen. She also noted that “Izzo plays for March,” and that you never know what could happen in a notoriously unpredictable tournament.
Tidwell agreed with Bardahl’s assessment, and added that even the team may not be very optimistic about its possible performance.
“They might get farther and shock everybody, but even Izzo knows that this isn’t going to be a team that raises a banner,” she said.
The Spartans have a nearly 25-year streak of participating in March Madness – and with that streak in jeopardy, some are discussing what that means for the program.
“I’m just seeing it as a transition point for the program,” Distelrath said. “Almost every time that we find ourselves in this position over the 23 years, it’s been after a tremendous run of success – like the 2002 MSU team barely got in and that was after going to the Final Four in ’99, 2000 and 2001.”
“The 2011 team barely got in after going to the Final Four in ’09 and ’10, and the Miles Bridges freshman year, after a whole cast of people had left, barely got in, and then now after Cassius (Winston) leaves and we had won three straight Big Ten championships, we’ll probably barely get in,” he added.
Bardahl said the uncertainty is more reflective of this year than the team.
“I think it just says a lot about the absurdity of this season in general,” she said, “because we also see similar things with North Carolina and Duke and Kentucky.”
Tidwell also acknowledged the possibility of MSU not being invited to the tournament.
“I feel like it’s going to suck if they don’t make it in, but Izzo’s not going to take it to heart and he’s just going to come back stronger next year,” she said.